What Is An MVNO? Mobile Virtual Network Operators Compared!

What Is An MVNO? Mobile Virtual Network Operators Compared!

You’re probably familiar with Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint. These are the four major wireless carriers in the United States. However, there are dozens of smaller wireless carriers that piggyback off of the major carriers’ networks in order to provide cellular service. These carriers are known as MVNOs, and in this article I’ll explain what they are and how switching to one could benefit you!

What Is An MVNO?

An MVNO, or mobile virtual network operator, is a wireless carrier that doesn’t own the technology it uses to provide coverage to its customers. Typically, an MVNO will lease access to cell towers from one or more of the major wireless carriers.

What Are The Benefits Of An MVNO?

Years ago, I signed up for my first “real” cell phone plan, long before I knew anything about MVNOs or cell towers. It was a Virgin Mobile plan. With that plan, I got 300 minutes, unlimited texting, and unlimited data. It only cost $25 a month!

Unfortunately, that plan no longer exists, but it does highlight one of the potential advantages of choosing an MVNO as your wireless carrier. Although they lease access to cell towers from major carriers, mobile virtual network operators are essentially free to offer whatever plans they want at whatever prices they want.

Sometimes this means you can sign up for a great cell phone plan with no long-term contract at a cheaper price than you’d get with a major wireless carrier.

Do MVNO Data Plans Get Deprioritized?

One common concern people have about signing up for a cell phone plan with an MVNO is whether or not their data speeds will get deprioritized. After all, a major carrier owns the cell towers that provide service, couldn’t they deprioritize MVNO customers in favor of their own?

In some cases, MVNO users may find their data speeds deprioritized. In fact, some wireless carriers prioritize some of their own customers over others!

Cell towers can only handle so much traffic, and the carrier that owns the cell tower can distinguish which phones are connecting directly and which phones are connecting through an MVNO. If you’re in a busy urban area like New York City where tons of people are all trying to connect to a cell tower at the same time, your data may be deprioritized regardless of your wireless carrier.

You May Already Have A Contract With An MVNO!

If you’re wireless carrier isn’t Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or US Cellular, odds are your wireless carrier is an MVNO. Straight Talk, Boost Mobile, Cricket Wireless, and Virgin Mobile are all very popular mobile virtual network operators. Each of these carriers have millions of subscribers!

How Do I Sign Up For A Plan With An MVNO?

Check out our tool to compare cell phone plans offered by dozens of different MVNOs. You can compare plans side-by-side to see how MVNOs stack up against the big four! Just use the Carrier filter to sort by plans from different MVNOs.

MVNOs Explained!

I hope this article helped you understand what an MVNO is and how they differ from the four major wireless carriers. If you have any other questions about your cell phone plan or wireless carrier, don’t hesitate to ask in the comment section below!


David Lynch

Hi, I'm David! I'm here to help you fix problems with your iPhone and help you find a better cell phone plan.